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Are You Really Collecting Profiles?

  |  March 13, 2001   |  Comments

As we rely on other sites to provide e-commerce, content, and community, our own sites become more complex, increasing the probability of error. Programs at our own sites periodically malfunction, too. What can you do? Take the time to test.

Many Web sites are delivering value to the audience by collecting data from visitors and returning helpful information.

In most cases the data is obtained through forms on the Web page and software on the server. Because data can be collected from visitors in so many ways, ensuring that every interactive feature of a site is functioning has become difficult.

I've recently noticed that a number of sites have profile forms and search functions that just don't work. In one case I needed to use an industry directory at a site, but the link didn't work. I noticed that the link was to a database at a different site, one probably not under the first site's control. So I decided to use the feedback form to let the folks at the site know of the problem. Unfortunately that form wasn't working either. I did find a general email address to send a note to. Since those two important functions weren't working, I wasn't sure that I'd hear back from the organization. But I was surprised to receive a friendly note a few hours later saying someone was looking into why those features were not working.

The organization is staffed. And it responds to email very quickly. It just hadn't tested its site recently to spot the problems I found in a few minutes -- problems that may have been there for a long time.

Complexity Can Cause Difficulty

As we rely on remote sites to provide e-commerce, content, community, and other functions, our sites become more complex. But the problem is not just with remote sites. The programs and databases on our own sites malfunction periodically, too.

Most of the time it's easy to tell when these features are not functioning -- just click through the process and see if the right results appear. However, sometimes the integration with other sites appears to work but doesn't actually produce the right result. This can happen when data is collected at one site, then moved to another site using a variety of manual and automated processes.

For example, subscription services frequently use a single form to collect newsletter subscriptions for multiple companies. This consolidated data is broken into separate files and sent to each company for its use. The complexity of different IT departments from different companies can result in a coordination nightmare.

Take the Time to Test

When interactive features are key to a site's functionality, it's important to take the time to periodically test a site:

  • Do inquiry forms work? The best way to check whether inquiry forms are actually capturing profile data is to have someone test them. If your site uses cookies to identify the user, be sure to use a computer that doesn't have a cookie from your site. This will allow you to emulate a fresh user coming to your site.

  • Are search engines capturing the search phrase? Many search engines will place the search phrase in the URL, which is then stored in the Web server's log file. It's frequently helpful to know what people are searching for on your site so you can modify content to make it easier to find. If your log analysis program doesn't report search phrases, consider having your programmers modify it to store search phrases in a database so you can more easily analyze the data.

  • Are graphics missing, and are program errors occurring? Most Web servers store data about the pages and graphics served in what's called the access log. This data shows how a visitor arrived on the site, what he or she saw, and when. In addition, servers store data in the error log when it cannot find a requested file. It's easy to spot when a Web page is missing, but it can be hard to spot missing graphics when using a browser that doesn't make it obvious. The solution is to check the error log periodically.

  • Are partner content sites functioning? It has become easy to rely on databases and other forms of content by just linking to another site. If the remote site is unavailable, however, it not only deprives your audience of the content but also tarnishes your image. There is no better way to ensure that these remote sites are functioning properly than by testing them yourself from time to time.

These are just a few of the areas that can cause a site to miss opportunities to serve its audience and capture valuable data at the same time.

With complex sites depending on integrating functions from multiple sites, more attention needs to be paid to ongoing testing. Doing so will ensure that your site continues delivering value to the audience -- and that you collect the profile data needed to understand your audience's needs.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cliff Allen

Cliff Allen is President of Coravue, a company that provides content management software and application service provider (ASP) hosting for Web and email. Allen is coauthor of three books about Internet marketing, including the "One-to-One Web Marketing, Second Edition" (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

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